More than four fifths (81%) of the British public are worried about meat quality standards being relaxed by ministers in pursuit of trade deals with the US and the rest of the world, according to polling from UNISON/Savanta ComRes published today (Thursday).
Over half (52%) believe the government regulations for meat quality standards should be tightened following the UK’s departure from the EU. A third (34%) say the UK should maintain its current laws and just 3% say rules should be relaxed.
The poll of more than 2,000 people was commissioned amid concerns the government could agree to import chicken washed in chlorine or lactic acid in exchange for a US deal.
Poultry meat that’s undergone the process is currently banned in EU countries over concerns it masks poor hygiene standards.
Fewer than one in eight people (12%) say a relaxation of quality standards as a result of post-Brexit trade deals would give them no cause for concern. Both the British Poultry Council and the National Farmers’ Union have expressed fears about food standards being lowered.
The poll also found a majority of the British public would lose confidence in the safety of meat if the government were to privatise the regulation of the industry and ditch independent inspections by meat hygiene inspectors and vets employed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The FSA is proposing more meat inspections be carried out by workers at profit-making companies, in addition to its own staff.
Meat hygiene inspectors and vets currently oversee the checking of animals before and after slaughter to ensure contaminated meat – that could cause sickness, food poisoning or even fatalities – doesn’t enter the food chain. Allowing abattoirs to carry out their own checks is also being considered.
According to the poll, more than four fifths of people (85%) believe it should be compulsory for meat safety and slaughterhouse standards to be assessed by independent inspectors.
Two-thirds (65%) are of the opinion that independent, government inspections are the best way to ensure meat is safe and disease-free. Just 9% think inspections by private firms are sufficient, while 8% believe slaughterhouses should be able to regulate themselves.
More than half (52%) say they would be less confident about the quality of meat in the UK if private firms inspected abattoirs. Almost two thirds (64%) say they’d have less confidence if slaughterhouses monitored their own production processes.
The public is equally unhappy with private inspections for restaurants and takeaways, which are currently undertaken by local councils.
More than half (53%) say private inspections would make them less confident about food safety. Only around one in six (17%) would be more confident.
There have been concerns about health risks as a result of financial cuts to council budgets. Reduced funding over the past decade has meant councils around the UK have scaled back safety inspections and made widespread redundancies, says UNISON.
Recent figures from the FSA show the number of samples taken from food establishments in England and Wales in 2018/19 has fallen by 58% since the start of the decade.
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Public safety and confidence in the food on our plates is at stake as this government puts everything on the line for a trade deal.
“Cosying up to the US president shouldn’t mean dropping standards by accepting meat with poor hygiene, which has been given a blast of bleach or acid to gloss over its murky past.
“Consumers care how their food is prepared, that’s why they want independent checks. They’ll have no faith if the industry is virtually left to look after itself.
“Cost-cutting mustn’t be at the expense of public safety. The best way to ensure what we consume is fit for purpose is to have independent inspections. We shouldn’t be putting checks in the hands of the meat producers themselves.
“The government must fund proper inspections rather than put lives at risk or undermine trust in food safety. Brexit should mean the UK’s current high standards are maintained or improved – not the introduction of bargain-basement, third-rate standards.”
Notes to editors
– The poll was carried out by Savanta ComRes who surveyed 2,015 British adults from 24 to 27 January 2020. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all British adults. Savanta ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at www.comresglobal.com.
– Full findings of the poll can be accessed here.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services – in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in both the public and private sectors.